‘Finally our day is here’

trial that started Tuesday, Jan. 17, in St John’s could see thousands of applicants for Qalipu First Nation status have their membership reinstated, 10 years after a supplement agreement saw them struck from the list.

More than 100,000 people originally claimed status during an application process in 2009 when the west coast Mi’kmaw band was being formed.

In 2013, the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and the federal government agreed on new criteria that rejected about 80 per cent of those members.

“It’s not that we want benefits. It’s that we want recognition. It’s our heritage,” Pauline Tessier said at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Tuesday.

Tessier and Helen Darrigan started a group called Friends of Qalipu Advocacy Association 10 years ago to fight for reinstatement.

Neither are among the six rejected applicants named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but a successful challenge would void the agreement that revoked their status and thousands more.

“When you negotiate a contract, a contract is a contract, and we signed the application form, it says there that by signing the document, you identify as a Mi’kmaw, and that’s what we went under the premise of,” Tessier said.

The landless Qalipu First Nation is already one of the biggest Indigenous groups in the country.

The supplemental agreement employed a complicated points system that scored applications based on everything from residency to participation in Mi’kmaw rituals.

It resulted in unusual situations such as one sibling being accepted and another being rejected, and people with long-standing connections losing their status.

Tessier says the process only accentuated the practice of penalizing people for losing their culture out of necessity.

“I think they’re trying to finish up what they started all along, to assimilate (Indigenous people) into the white society. That’s what I think has happened, and it’s not happening.”

A side deal in 2022 bypassed the residency requirement for one class of applicant.

That agreement provides individuals who were members of the RCMP, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Rangers, who were serving, honourably released or retired on or before Sept. 22, 2011, the date of the band’s formation, and their children with an opportunity to be considered for founding membership in the band.

Tessier said she’s hopeful the court will agree the process was unfair.

“We’ve been working for the last 10 years to get here, and finally our day is here,” she said. “All we’re looking for right now is fairness for everyone who applied for status. The wheels of justice takes a long time to turn.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Keith Morgan, spent Tuesday questioning Annie Randell, a Qalipu First Nation executive who was part of the team that negotiated the membership agreements.

Randell is expected to be on the stand again today.

The court has reserved three weeks for the trial.

The six plaintiffs in the case are Shawn Benoit, Matthew Anderson, Bobbie Tapp Goosney, Paul Bennett, Jennifer Sur Le Roux and Marie Melanson.

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram